Craig Barrett Takes On Vivek Wadhwa In The Tech Education Debate

Editor’s note: The most valuable employees of any technology company are the engineers and scientists, which is why everyone in Silicon Valley does whatever they can to ensure the continuous supply to this talent pool. The size of the talent pool is ultimately determined by the number of people who graduate from colleges and universities with science, technology, engineering, or mathematics degrees. The U.S. is graduating fewer and fewer scientists and engineers, causing concern in many quarters.

While many people agree this is a problem, not everyone agrees on what should be done about it. Former Intel chairman and CEO Craig Barrett is a strong proponent of priming the pump with more undergraduate science, engineering, and math students. Duke/UC-Berkeley professor (and regular TechCrunch columnist) Vivek Wadhwa thinks that better rewards for people who pursue engineering and science degrees is the right approach. So we asked Barrett and Wadhwa to debate the issue of how best to fix technology education in the U.S. Their exchange is below:

Vivek Wadhwa:

Craig Barrett is someone who I hold in the highest regard. Ever since he retired as Intel’s CEO, Dr. Barrett has made it his life’s mission to improve U.S. competitiveness. He believes that the way to do this is to teach more math and science. And he believes we need to graduate more PhDs in science and engineering.

I wholeheartedly support improvements in education and know the value that math and science skills provide. But the problems I see in U.S. competitiveness aren’t related to the numbers of engineering PhDs or scientists that we graduate. American companies are shifting R&D abroad because it makes economic sense for them to be near growth markets, and they can hire talented workers at a lower cost. It isn’t about deficiencies in American workers or a weakness of U.S. math and science education.

We are also graduating enough PhDs in science and engineering. The problem is that the majority of these graduates are foreign nationals (who are now increasingly returning home). American’s don’t consider it worthwhile to complete advanced science and engineering degrees because it doesn’t make financial sense for them to do so. Research by Harvard economist Richard Freeman showed that because salaries for scientists and engineers are lower than for other professions, the investment that students have to make in higher degrees isn’t cost-justified. Doctoral graduate students typically spend seven to eight years earning a PhD, during which time they are paid stipends. These stipends are usually less than what a bachelor’s degree-holder makes. Some students never make up for this financial loss. Foreign students typically have fewer opportunities and see a U.S. education as their ticket to the U.S. job market and citizenship. Hence, 60% of U.S. engineering PhD graduates are foreigners.

As this article from Scientific American discusses, the problems are even worse for graduating scientists.

…But today, however, few young PhDs can get started on the career for which their graduate education purportedly trained them, namely, as faculty members in academic research institutions. Instead, scores of thousands of them spend the years after they earn their doctorates toiling in low-paying, dead-end postdoctoral “training” appointments (called postdocs) in the laboratories of professors, where they ostensibly hone skills they would need to start labs of their own when they become professors. In fact, however, only about 25 percent of those earning American science PhDs will ever land a faculty job that enables them to apply for the competitive grants that support academic research. And even fewer—15 percent by some estimates—will get a post at the kind of research university where the nation’s significant scientific work takes place.

So, my argument is that if we create the incentives for American children to study math and science and to complete advanced degrees, the magic will happen. In addition to math and science, we should teach our children about world culture, geography, and global markets. In the era of globalization, these subjects are equally important. And while we fix the incentives for Americans, let’s do all we can to keep the best foreign students who come to the U.S. to study, here, so they are competing on our side.

Craig Barrett:

Economic competitiveness in the 21st Century will be quite different than in the past. With the free flow of information, capital, and people, economies will have to look for new comparative advantages. Most observers of this topic conclude that there are only three things that a country can do to increase their relative competitiveness and provide for an increased standard of living for their citizens. Countries have to invest in the education of their work force (smart people), they have to invest in research and development (smart ideas) and they have to provide the right environment to let smart people get together with smart ideas and create new products, new businesses, and new services. The most fundamental of these three issues is education. Historically the standard of living or per capita income has tracked closely with the level of education of the work force—as education lets workers add value to what they do and as the economy grows the standards of living increase.

Looking forward every major economy has identified the general areas that will drive innovation and economic growth. Japan, the US, and the EU have all listed those technologies (nanotech, photonics, new materials, micro electronics, alternative energy, biotech, etc) that will be key for development, productivity improvements, and growth. All of these areas have the common foundation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Hence it is straightforward to conclude that work force expertise in STEM will be a determinant of economic growth.

If we look at the US for a moment we can make several observations about the education of our current and future work force.

  1. US kids on average do poorly in mathematics, science and problem solving when compared to their OECD peers;
  2. Fewer US kids choose to major in the hard sciences and engineering each year (most of our engineering graduate students are in fact foreign nationals).
  3. The current 25 year old generation will be less well educated (defined by college graduation rates) than the 45 year old generation
  4. Most OECD and emerging economy countries are increasing their college (and STEM) graduation rates

So in contrast to the importance of STEM education for economic performance in the 21st Century we see the US moving in the opposite direction. Certainly our universities are still top ranked in the world in STEM but increasingly the graduates of those universities are foreign nationals who are often choosing to return home to pursue their professional careers. And we are producing no more STEM graduates than we did decades ago.

If the US is really serious about competing in the 21st Century economy we will have to decide to compete. This simply means that you have to create the work force (smart people), invest in R&D (smart ideas) and make sure the environment is attractive to investment in innovation (do something about tax rates, make it easier to form corporations, provide incentives to invest in R&D and make capital investments, etc). Otherwise you will see the continuous flight of capital and jobs to regions of the world where governments have made the environment more attractive. This is not a simple issue of wage rates—corporations chase after the best possible work force in areas where the total cost is most attractive and often the total cost is much more heavily weighted by corporate tax rates and incentives, not wage rates.

STEM education is key for our future. We need a major upgrade in our K-12 education to produce high school graduates who understand and appreciate STEM.

We need more undergraduates majoring in STEM for the jobs of the 21st Century. And we need more STEM graduate students to drive those industries that are key to our future. As a measure of how rapidly things are changing with time, it used to be that many STEM Ph.Ds turned right around and went after faculty positions in our universities. Today, STEM Ph.Ds are the entry level education requirements to get into the engineering and research laboratories of the successful tech corporations in the US, like Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, IBM, etc. It is also certain that not every STEM graduate is going to pursue a limited career in STEM. STEM education is a great introduction to many other professions – the basis of STEM education being problem solving means that this education is a great entry to other jobs. In fact the most common educational background of the Fortune 500 CEOs is engineering.

So at a time when the rest of the world is gearing up for competition let’s refocus the US to do the same. That is unless you believe our future is in low value add services or manufacturing, investment banking, tort lawyers or asphalt ready construction jobs. Somebody has to create some wealth if you want your economy to grow.

Vivek Wadhwa’s Rebuttal:

Again, I wholeheartedly agree that we need to improve K-12 education and I agree about the importance of STEM education. The question is, how do you motivate American children to enter fields like science and engineering that are harder than others to learn, don’t provide the economic rewards, and that aren’t considered “cool”? We can’t force our children to do PhDs in math.

As the article from Scientific American showed, many engineering and science PhDs can’t even get jobs – in academia or industry. This is after they have worked for years at ridiculously low wages as researchers or postdocs. Those that do get jobs don’t ever make up for the financial sacrifice they have made. When American children choose to study science or engineering, their friends call them geeks or nerds – they are made to feel inferior. Their Indian and Chinese counterparts are held in high regard by society and end up at the top of the social ladder. Indian and Chinese engineers and scientists are often national heroes. Here, our kids idolize football players and rock stars.

We can’t also just tell our children that the nation’s competitiveness and standard of living depends on them making sacrifice and completing advanced degrees in math and science. They won’t care. We should improve the K-12 education system as you suggest. Our corporations should also invest in workforce development – which they generally don’t. We should also provide tax breaks for research as you say. And we should fix our university research system (I have written about the big problems with this).

The issue I am highlighting is that even if we did all of the good things you suggest, this would not fix the problem of American children not being motivated to become scientists and engineers. My top students at the Masters of Engineering Management Program at Duke University still vie for high-paying investment banking jobs; they don’t become engineers. It is the same with our top PhDs in math; they become quants at investment banks. Their talent ends up being used by investment banks to find new ways of bilking the financial system.

We need to create the excitement about science and engineering at the national level and motivate our best and brightest to become engineers and scientists. And we need to make it worthwhile financially for them to help our country stay competitive and to solve the problems facing our planet. This is as much a marketing problem as it is an investment problem. An example of a way to fix the marketing problem is what National Academy of Engineering President, Charles Vest, proposed with the Grand Challenges for Engineering program. But this is a tiny first step. We need to do a lot more.

Craig Barrett’s Rebuttal:

Let me respectfully disagree with one point Vivek makes and then give some suggestions on how to overcome his second issue.

First, this is not a financial compensation issue. If it were then every kid who goes to college would choose to major in engineering because a BS in engineering (almost any subject) commands the highest salary of any university graduate. Most kids don’t major in engineering because they don’t have the interest, the aptitude, or they like some other major more. Our young college graduates do not chase the dollar; they tend to follow their interests. In addition, when I look at the unemployment statistics, engineers are usually amongst the highest employment professions in the country. Certainly the percentage of NFL or rock star wannabes or business administration majors or medieval history majors on unemployment is much higher than that for engineers. So can we please move away from the simplistic argument that STEM doesn’t pay?

In addition if you look at graduate school and the graduate Ph.D who spends years working as a Post Doc angling for a teaching position at a prestigious university you simply cannot do an ROI analysis on his or her investment to land the faculty position and conclude that no one will be a Post Doc. The individual is chasing that faculty position because that is what they really want to do. Just like an aspiring actor spends years doing bit parts to finally land the big role. You know that because the end point, the faculty position, is not the highest paid option for the Ph.D. He or she can make more money in the private sector and probably have greater resources (capital facilities and research dollars) to pursue interesting problems. The Post Doc pursues their interest precisely because that is what they are interested in. As there are many more Post Docs than faculty positions available we have to conclude that Post Docs are Post Docs because they want to try to become faculty members and that Post Docs do not represent an inherent limitation or barrier to people trying to obtain a Ph.D in STEM. The private sector has a strong appetite for STEM Ph.Ds—just look at the hiring practices of the major corporations.

The real barrier to pursuing degrees in STEM is that we have almost a perfect filter in place in K-12. For a student to want to major in STEM in college they have to exit high school with a strong mathematics background. That means that they need to have a good math teacher in nearly every grade (in addition to having a good physics, chemistry, and biology teacher). We know that about 1/3 of all math and science teachers in K-12 are not certified in their subjects and probably do not do a good job educating and motivating their students. If you assume for a moment that you need 12 good math teachers in a row to exit high school being proficient in math then the calculation of the probability of such an event happening is simple: 0.67 raised to the 12th power shows you what a perfect filter the K-12 system is.

So how about a national effort to get more STEM content majors into K-12 teaching? A few exciting programs have started in this space (UTeach out of Texas, Teach for America, the revamp of the education school at ASU). All we need to do is start recognizing that hiring content experts in K-12 is more important than hiring someone who has studied education pedagogy for 4 years. Just imagine how many folks interested in STEM want to take all those School of Education classes to get their teaching certificate.

On to the point where I want to support Vivek, i.e., the need to get more kids interested in STEM during K-12. This can happen in the class room with good teachers (can you imagine a PE teacher doubling as a math teacher inspiring kids to want to pursue math?) and it can happen outside of the class room. For example I just spent yesterday afternoon in Phoenix at the FIRST Robotics Championship competition—the energy, the enthusiasm, the application of STEM was fantastic. But only about 15,000 kids nationwide participate in this competition. Just suppose we had a FIRST team at every school in the country. Next week I am at the Intel Science Talent Search (the Nobel equivalent for high school students doing research). The 40 finalists will be doing research better than my Ph.D thesis topic. But only about 1500 kids a year enter this competition—what if we had 15,000? Or 150,000?

This is where we need to mobilize the public and private sectors to improve. This is where we can catch the imagination of the next generation and turn them into candidates for those STEM Ph.Ds. There is sub critical mass working in this area – it just needs to be expanded. Suppose we organized the top 200 STEM oriented companies in the US and let them work at the local level to make FIRST robotics, science fairs, and computer club houses really happen across the US. Then we could overcome the tired arguments that our society doesn’t value STEM. There is a movement to make this happen right now. The best thing we could all do is throw our weight behind this effort.